Getting off Scott free

Hugo Barnacle re-visits an old political scandal Rinkagate: The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe by Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose, Bloomsbury pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
The innocence of Rinka seems to be a major theme of this exhaustive and bleakly funny re-investigation of the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Yet the authors admit that Rinka, the Great Dane belonging to the Liberal leader's spurned lover Norman Scott, was "highly excited" that foggy night on Porlock Hill, "jumping" at the terrified gunman Andrew Newton, who "thought he was being attacked by a man-eating donkey."

Many people, had they been in Newton's shoes, at a late hour on a lonely moor not a million miles from the old stamping ground of the Hound of the Baskervilles, and had they happened to have a pistol handy, might have found themselves tempted to do as Newton did, and open fire before the fangs came any closer.

Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose concede that many people might have been tempted to shoot Norman Scott as well. He was an exasperating tar- baby of a man who was unable to make his way in life except by battening on to people who felt sorry for him, and who was equally unable to repay those people except with tantrums and petty acts of spite.

Freeman and Penrose are convinced that Newton was sent to murder Scott, not simply to frighten him, and only failed because the ancient Mauser jammed after firing the one round that killed Rinka, so the poor animal indirectly saved her master's life. But Newton, a self-confessed liar and fantasist, kept changing his story when caught, and the jury at Jeremy Thorpe's trial did not find him a reliable witness.

As to who hired Newton, it was a friend of Thorpe's called David Holmes. The contract fee of pounds 10,000 was major spuds in 1975, improbably large for a mere frightening job. Thorpe obtained it, by written requests over his own signature, from the millionaire philanthropist Jack Hayward in the Bahamas, claiming it was to cover Liberal Party election expenses. Police traced it by bank paperwork, through a secret Party account in Jersey, on to Holmes, and on to Newton. They also recovered Thorpe's letters to Hayward. But as soon as you mention offshore bank accounts to a jury, they get confused and stop listening.

Holmes, as Thorpe's co-defendant along with the two Welsh businessmen who recommended Newton for the job, did not testify. The only witness who said Thorpe had been planning for years to kill Scott was Peter Bessell, sometime Liberal MP for Bodmin. But Bessell was another self-confessed liar, with a string of failed businesses and duped creditors behind him. Furthermore his hair was dyed an unconvincing shade of orange. So his story went for nothing.

Scott himself was more than pleased to tell the court, as he told everyone he met, about his homosexual affair with Thorpe. A guilt-ridden cradle Catholic, he stated that homosexuality was an incurable disease with which Thorpe had infected him back in 1961, and that Thorpe should therefore have looked after him for the rest of his life. Bent on revenge ever since Thorpe dumped him, he had continually pestered the man for cash while threatening to go public. Freeman and Penrose insist that this was not calculated blackmail, it was just Norman being Norman, but the jury may have felt less confident on the matter. Scott was yet another dodgy witness.

The not-guilty verdict is an outrage to Freeman and Penrose, but it was handed down for the same reason as in the OJ Simpson trial: the prosecution didn't present their case very well. Even so, Thorpe had already resigned the Liberal leadership and was soon forced to quit public life altogether. In an interview with the authors last year, a satisfied Scott "laughed and slapped himself, delighted" that Thorpe is now dying of Parkinson's disease in obscurity.

As political scandal, Rinkgate is old news. But as a story of people's failure to recognise or tackle their own shortcomings - Thorpe's hypocrisy, Scott's self-pity - it is quite instructive.